Stories are intensely truthful lies.
That’s just one of many insightful observations in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall, where he draws from contrastive layers of science, history and culture to begin shaping an understanding of why we, homo-sapiens (wise man), still haven’t short-circuited our evolutionary hardwiring as homo fictus (fiction-loving man).
Sure, everybody loves a good story. But, Gottschall asks, why is our need for narrative hard-wired so deeply into our psychology? Into the deepest recesses of our collective conscience? Is it to seek out entertainment? Fun and games? Or does storytelling – or our need to ‘storify’ everything – serve a more important, biological function? It’s a valid question. And his discoveries are both surprising and stimulating.
The first of these is the inconceivable amount of time we spend in our fictional worlds which, if tallied over a lifetime, adds up to more decades living in the lairs of fantasy than in actual reality. Apparently, the average daydream is about 14 seconds long and we go through 2,000 of them every day. That’s almost eight hours straight of spinning fantasies per day. So whether it’s daydreams or confabulations, novels or life narratives, “Neverland is our evolutionary niche,” as Gottschall puts it, “our special habitat.”
Another discovery sheds light on the dominant themes of these stories. Take a look into the plotlines of a child’s play time, nursery rhymes, daydreams and storybooks. Devoid of the boring bits, they are a dense collection of conflict, trouble and struggle: Cops and robbers; cowboys and Indians; life and death – all acted out in the broad daylight of their mental playgrounds. Proving that if story land is all about escapism, then shouldn’t we be escaping into a more blissful pleasure-dome?
The same goes for our nightly hallucinations that are brimming with violence, chaos and discord. When researchers analyse the content of our dreams, it turns out that dreamland is all about fight or flight. And contrary to popular belief, Gottschall suggests that nightmares are just your mind’s way of flushing out all the extraneous, visual text that could not be edited fittingly into your life’s daily narrative. Sorry, Freud.
But what do these and other observations say about the true function of story? Corroborated by neuroscience, a story’s first job is to simulate the future. Gottschall explains: “By learning the rules of the world and simulating outcomes in the service of decision making, (our) brains can play out events without the risk and expense of attempting them physically.” In other words, the world of fiction is how we experience emotions without paying for them.
But stories run even deeper in our lives. As anyone in advertising will profess, most information bounces off with little impression and even less recollection. Which is why communicators (like teachers, politicians and prophets), must resort to the potency of story. See, if you are going about wanting to change the brain, you need the correct dosage of neurotransmitters. And those are only in attendance when someone is curious, perched on a cliff hanger, aiming to predict what happens next and is fully emotionally engaged.
Which is why, successful religious texts – or, dare I say, sacred fiction – are not written as nonfiction, as rational, reasonable arguments or bullet points. They arrive transformed as memorable and momentous stories. Often from an oracle, an angel, or an even higher authority to lend them more credence and staying power. Stories of burning bushes, mammoth floods, seas parting, lost tribes, collective revenge or great betrayals. Proving that stories are not just compulsory to how we understand the world – they are how we understand the world around us.
And in each of these stories, there are lessons of vivid morality (designed for passage into posterity). In fact, Gottschall stresses, if a story is empty of a moral trajectory, we lose interest. This is because a story’s pro-social functions help define groups, coordinate behaviour and suppress selfishness in favour of cooperation. As such, stories are as biologically important as our genes. They are not a waste of time; instead, they are evolutionary innovations designed to get the groups that curate them to live by them, for them and from them. Stories are moral DNA.
Shakespeare was onto something when he wrote, “We are such stuff. As dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” So was the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who memorably asserted, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Stories may begin with a writer but they don’t end with him. A writer engraves the words, but the words are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. And the catalyst is a reader’s imagination that, once engaged, can travel with you on any journey, at anytime, anywhere across space and time.